|To lose one talented female MP can be counted as a misfortune. To lose more than a dozen begins to look like recklessness.
At the next election, our Parliament is facing an exodus of capable, competent women who are giving up on a career in politics long before their time. Yes, it’s normal for a cadre of MPs to step down at any election. And the number of women doing so is in proportion to the (paltry) number of women in Parliament overall. But the average number of years these women have served is about half the number of years served by the men choosing to retire from Parliamentary life. They’re bowing out early, driven out by abuse, exhaustion and the hope of a simpler life.
A political career is decades in the making, especially if your party is in opposition. So be under no illusions: if talented women are giving up after five or 10 years, they are giving up the chance to secure lasting power or impact. If you can’t hear the alarm bells ringing for the quality of our politics, you need to take a syringe to your ears.
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Being an MP has always been a pretty awful job. You have to have the skills of a social worker to deal with the problems your constituents bring you. You need a capable legal mind to navigate through your responsibilities as a legislator. If you take your constituency seriously, you have to split your life in two: live in the constituency and spend most weeks away from your family, or live in London, and shuttle the family up and down the motorway every weekend — until the children are teenagers and refuse to leave their friends, at which point you barely see them.
Most MPs want to make a difference. They want to improve the lives of their constituents, and the citizens of our country. They will put up with all of the crap if they know it serves a higher purpose. Half the problem is that our politics is so obsessed with Brexit at the moment that it’s hard to know what difference any MP is making, even if they do slog away for 80 hours a week.
On top of that, the party system is eating itself, putting more and more power into the hands of the most extreme. Imagine going home to your beloved constituency every week and being answerable not to your voters, but to the hundred or so most unrepresentative, most rabidly engaged activists who happen to be your local party.
Yes, MPs are well paid for the work they do, earning twice the average full-time salary of someone in their forties. But their decent pay packet, and their privileged role in our democracy, have started to be seen as a reason to dehumanise them completely.
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It’s your fault: you voted the wrong way, the haters say. You took this job: you deserve everything that’s coming to you. Abuse against our MPs has reached epidemic proportions. On all sides — Leave, Remain, Left and Right — abusers on social media and in the streets have found a louder and louder voice. Death threats. Rape threats. Threats against family members. Dog shit through the letterbox.
It shouldn’t surprise us that women are more likely to buckle under this horror. Women are more vulnerable to physical threats, most of which come from men. Much of the abuse is gendered, with pregnant MPs singled out for attacks. And, because of the imbalanced way in which most parenting still happens in our society, women are also more likely to carry the burden of balancing family life with the challenges of their career.
If we lose the women from our Parliament, we have no hope of governing our country better. In the last months, Parliament has heard powerful testimonials from women speaking about miscarriage; sexual violence; abortion; living in an abusive relationship, and more. A Parliament without these voices would be impoverished, and that’s the Parliament we’re in danger of reverting to.
But it isn’t just talented women we’re in danger of losing. You don’t have to be a woman MP to think: why am I doing this to myself? More and more brilliant people seem to be leaving politics simply because they have better options: more money, more fun, less hatred, less work. And brilliant people who ought to go into politics look at the morass and say: never in a million years.
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This is a crisis for our politics. If the best people run for the hills at the thought of a life in politics we will end up with the worst people in charge: and we the citizens will suffer.
There’s a Netflix series, Mindhunter, which tells the story of the first psychologists to study serial killers. The lead woman is an academic who’s spent her career studying psychopathic business leaders. Someone asks her: “How do you get to be a CEO if you’re a psychopath?”. She replies: “How do you get to be a CEO if you’re not?” These are the rules now governing our politics, too: ladders of opportunity for those who least deserve them. A pathway to a country led by shits and weirdos.
If we want great people to run our country, we need to make being an MP a fantastic job again — and stamping out political abuse is only the start. Change the rules so we genuinely attract and reward the best talent. Open primaries to create real opportunity for democratic engagement, and break the stranglehold of obsessive activists. Better paid and more qualified staff, so you know you’re doing a decent job. Proper parental leave, with Parliament by video conference for half the week so you can actually see your children from time to time, and stay in touch with your constituents.
We’re not good at democratic reform, I know, here in Britain. But the case is now urgent. Unless you really do want a country led by shits and weirdos, in which case: good luck to you.